Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Why We Need Hokum (Part One)

We were getting sercon (serious and constructive) during Arnie Katz’s floating perpetual party at this year's Corflu, the convention for fans of amateur publishing (fanzines), held recently in Las Vegas, when the conversation turned to hokum — why people believe non-scientific things with such fervor, passion and delight.

“But we need hokum,” I said.

As I started to explain further, Andy Hooper, fez-wearing superfan, leaned forward and said, “Why don’t you write about that for the upcoming 20th issue of Chunga?”

For those of you not among the science fiction cognoscenti, Chunga is a Hugo-nominated science fiction fanzine published by Andy, Randy Byers, and the mysterious carl juarez. I had appeared in the pages of Chunga previously, collaborating with Jay Kinney on “CorFlu Titanium Tag-Team Con Report,” which appeared in Issue 10. (Corflu Titanium was the 22nd of the series, and took place in San Francisco in 2005.  That year, "CorFlu" was all too appropriate as a name. Although the convention report ends on Sunday, the story continued as a bout of particularly nasty flu plagued attendees for the following week. I was in San Francisco nominally to teach a project management class, where I infected several students. This did not help my ratings.)

Now safely back from Las Vegas, I realized that I hadn’t thought through the topic nearly well enough to satisfy the demanding editorial standards of Chunga. Being in need of a blog post for the week, it occurred to me that I could get some initial thoughts down as a first draft, and from there think about something more solid. So, here goes.

Hokum, helpfully defined by Wikipedia as a synonym for bullshit, is a portmanteau word combining “hocus-pocus” and “bunkum.” The "hocus-pocus" part of hokum refers to its appeal to emotional response rather than inherent truth. Hokum is designed to make you feel an emotion, and in that way it’s often more satisfying than the dry, literal truth would have been.

"Bullshit" refers to emotional appeals disguised as fact (one scribe calls it “relevancies without data”), and thus has its major roots in the areas of politics and advertising. The word “bullshit” has a rather odd history. While the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) suggests the word originates in the Old French boul (fraud or deceit), various forms of animal shit have been used to describe nonsense. My favorite of these is the German bockmist, or “billy-goat shit.”

The OED’s first citation of bullshit as a pejorative comes from T. S. Eliot’s poem “The Triumph of Bullshit,” written in the 1910s but only published after his death. Here’s the first stanza:
Ladies, on whom my attentions have waited
If you consider my merits are small
Etiolated, alembicated,

Orotund, tasteless, fantastical,

Monotonous, crotchety, constipated,

Impotent galamatias

Affected, possibly imitated,

For Christ's sake stick it up your ass.
Written in ballade form, the refrain “For Christ’s sake stick it up your ass” ends each verse.

While we’re on the subject, and I have my dictionary open, “bunkum,” interestingly, traces back to my home state of North Carolina, specifically Buncombe County, located in the mountainous western part of the state. "Bunkum" is a collapsed version of “speaking for Buncombe,” and originally took the same spelling as the county name. Its origin traces back to 1820, when US representative Felix Walker, who represented Buncombe County, spoke on the topic of whether Missouri should be admitted to the Union as a slave state or a free state, but his “long and wearisome speech” drew catcalls and derision from the other members of Congress. “Speaking for Buncombe” became a Washington insider joke, then became common usage under a more phonetic spelling.

More to come.

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